Adrian Shaughnessy | Essays

Graphic Design vs. Illustration

Someone emailed me recently to point out that illustration isn't included in Design Observer's list of "categories" — the list you can see below, on the right of your screen. Art, typography and photography are there, but not illustration. Is this omission a simple oversight, or does it tell us something significant about the current state of illustration?

The professional world of illustration is widely believed to be in poor shape. As Steven Heller noted recently: "I am an advocate of illustration and saddened by its loss of stature among editors who feel photography is somehow more effective (and controllable)." There are, of course, many reasons for illustration's fading stature other than the commercial world's hard-nosed preference for photography over the arty vagueness of hand-rendered imagery. The ubiquity of software that allows graphic designers to generate their own imagery is another factor, as is the rise of illustration stock libraries. Yet perhaps illustration's current status owes most to its near-total eclipse by graphic design. To understand the contemporary state of illustration, we need to look at its relationship with graphic design.

There was a time when graphic design and illustration were indivisible. Many of the great designers of the 20th century were also illustrators and moved effortlessly between image-making and typographic functionalism. Traditionally, most designers viewed illustration with reverence; many even regarded it as inherently superior to design. And with good reason: design was about the anonymous conveying of messages, while illustration was frequently about vivid displays of personal authorship. Like artists, illustrators signed their work, and some were even public figures (no graphic designer ever enjoyed the fame of Norman Rockwell, for example). As Ed Fella, a practitioner with feet in both camps, sagely noted: "Whereas graphic design is more anonymous, all illustration is sold for its particular and individual style."

But during the 1990s, illustration's "individual style" became a liability. Visual communication was colonized by tough-minded, business-driven graphic designers who gave their clients what they wanted: branding, strategy and the precision-tooled delivery of commercial messages. Even amongst more idealistic designers — designers who embraced theory, political activism (no big-name illustrators signed the First Things First manifesto), and notions of self-authorship — it became apparent that highly expressive graphic design could achieve some of the conceptual and aesthetic impact of illustration. The outcome of all this was that designers seemed to lose the habit of commissioning illustration, and most illustration was relegated to mere decoration.

Buy why?

It's a much-touted nostrum that we live in a visual world. Sure, the media landscape is saturated with images, but these images are nearly always accompanied by words signposting us to some sort of financial transaction. Graphic design's eclipsing of illustration is explained by illustration's lack of verbal explicitness. Graphic design is almost exclusively about precise communication, and its facility to combine words and images makes it a far more potent force than illustration. Milton Glaser has said: "In a culture that values commerce above all other things, the imaginative potential of illustration has become irrelevant... Illustration is now too idiosyncratic."

I was made aware of the main reason for graphic design's supremacy in the commercial world from an unlikely source. In his book What Good Are the Arts, the English academic John Carey sets out to discover an absolute measure for artistic worth. Dealing with the visual arts, Carey concludes that there is no defining yardstick: anything we choose to call art, is art. It's really a matter of personal choice. But halfway through his book Carey puts the case for literature. He sets out "to show why literature is superior to the other arts and can do things they cannot do."

For Carey, literature is the pre-eminent art form: "unlike the other arts," he writes, "it can criticize itself. Pieces of music can parody other pieces, and paintings can caricature paintings. But this does not amount to a total rejection of music and painting. Literature, however, can totally reject literature, and in this it shows itself more powerful and self-aware than any other art."

The attributes Carey applies to literature also apply to commercial communications. Words rule. Explicit language coupled with explicit images (devoid of ambiguity and nuance) is the lingua franca of advertising and marketing. We seem to have reached a point in Western culture where the abstract is no longer tenable. We demand explicitness in everything, which perhaps explains the contemporary appetite for endless news, reality television, the depiction of graphic violence and hardcore pornography.

Graphic design's ability to deliver explicit messages makes it a major (if little recognized) force in the modern world: it is embedded in the commercial infrastructure. Illustration, on the other hand, with its woolly ambiguity and its allusive ability to convey feeling and emotion, makes it too dangerous to be allowed to enter the corporate bloodstream. Our visual lives are the poorer for this.

Posted in: Graphic Design

Comments [58]

interesting post.

but i'd have to say that branding really isnt explicit, i feel that its more 'mood' and intuitively oriented. there is typeface, color, graphic language, photography, and systems of applicaiton, but i think those are more about 'ways' than explicit messages.

if you look at branding for apple or target, very little word-based language is used. in fact, symbols take the place of words themselves. the original campaign for the ipod was illustrative in that it was image-, and not language-, based. for both corporations, there is a language, but its a language of photography, color, motion, type, and other visual elements, including illustration.


Well written article here, but I have to disagree with the overall idea that illustration is dying or dead. I agree that in the recent past, illustration has definitely been overlooked for the more catchy, in your face, to-the-point graphic designs...but right now illustration seems to be taking on another life.

And also, when we discuss "illustration", I think it's wrong to place photography in a completely different category. Where photography is today is nowhere like it's ever been. In one of the many design magazines I read, a recent graduate (whose name I can't remember unforunately) said something along the lines of 'an unedited photograph is nothing more than a sketch in my notebook'...meaning once a photograph hits the computer it more often than not turns into an illustraion! With all the brushes that hit it and colour tweaks, etc. it's more of a digital painting than a photograph.

So maybe, if someone believes illustration is dying, they might want to think about the possibility that the majority of illustrators are simply not evolving with the time.

(love the site btw. It's great for students like me!)

Can you say "budgets?" For nearly 9 years I have designed a publication for a cancer institute, funded partially by a university and its sister healthcare organization.

Other publications on this same campus have larger budgets for illustration of each issue than my entire design and production budget. It is encouraging to see the rich use of illustration on these other publications, but difficult when I have to explain to my client that "No, you can't have that because you have no money."

In my own arrogance and need for something decent to show for my work, I end up illustrating. (It helps to be old school enough to be able to actually draw.)

My favorite projects over the years have been the ones in which I called Bill Mayer and said "Make me look smart." (He always does. And I congratulate myself on being so smart as to call him.)

Yupo's use of Bill's work illustrated that illustration and branding can successfully go hand-in hand. Perhaps we can use that as a case study when persuading our clients to use illustration as an integrated tool in our branding as well as other communication efforts.
Michelle French

Illustration has, and always will be the red-headed stepchild of design and perhaps art in general.

Illustration as advertisement may be underused at the moment, but there has been a merging of graphic design and illustration over the past few years that only seems to be cresting as we speak. While it may not be used for the next great series of Apple adverts, it is the corporate mantra of Starbucks where everything, and I do mean every little thing, must have some hand crafted element before it hits the shelves or media outlets. I would also like to point out that while illustration in print has significantly decreased, the use of illustration via animation in corporate advertising has increased. I have also seen resurgence in the rock poster, where illustration is essential, and the proliferation of illustration in both clothing and textiles.

Illustration per se may have lost its luster in the corporate mainstream, but it thrives elsewhere. When did we start to judge the validity or value of what we do on corporate need or the swinging pendulum of fad? In the end, illustration can be just as expressive as the well paced interactions of typography and image. It is but another means to communicate the message. Illustration is far from dead. I wish I could say the same for corporate inspiration.
James D. Nesbitt

There are good points that are brought up within this article, but looking at the lifespan of art, it is always evolving. I don't think that we are ever going to loose one element of art to another, sometimes they meld together or fall apart from each other with their own individuality.

It all depends on your audience and whos attention you are trying to grab. As for the corporate world of IT professionals, the graphic design is more minimalistic, and has to do more with statements and words, and photography rather then illustration.

But it is brought back within some advertising. As well as there are other companys that have a different type of audience all together, and use way more illustration then photography or a combination of the two. There is a place for both together or not.

Sometimes we even think with film that we are loosing imagination and creativity, and everything is becoming in your face spoon-fed drama and action.

Well then there is a move that comes out called "the science of sleep" which I believe is full of artistic and illustrative instances that are truely creative to the core.

Watch it.

You're spot on, Matthew.

Take a "photostration" like this in New York magazine. There are four photographs, four illustrations and four credits. Fee: $400.

Its Darwinian. Everything is survived by fees. When fees dry up, you dip your pen wherever the pay is. This guy (who some would argue is the most famous/ respectable illustrator in history) has resorted to selling royalty free works. Dispicable or just a sign of the times? It's worth further examination when Steve Heller attatches his name to it.
felix sockwell

Illustration isn't dead by any means. Nope. Maybe it's the black clothes.....

If ADs and Cds were more encouraging with their clients to take the bold leap into Wild Imagination, we'd have a few more projects. Doesn't matter, we'll find new sources...

One can see why pre-chewed stock art fits in so well with the cannibalistic post-post-post modern world. It's easy to swallow for the toothless.
Mark Andresen

I know illustrators exist in my state. In my town even. I've met with them and talked to them.

However, when I have a project that would really benefit from an illustration -- guess what? I can't find one illustrator in the phone book, or one with a Web site. (I mean, if I don't know their name -- I'm not going to find them.)

People from all over the country send me postcards about their illustrating prowess and I've commissioned a few of them as the projects dictate.

I'ts hard to believe there isn't some national Illustrators club or at least some loose affiliation with a Web site. All I can find is the Graphic Artist's Guild. Not every town/state has a listing.

I've called freelancers in the area -- they don't know what to tell me either. This in the land of Hallmark. ?!?!?

Has anyone else had a similar experience?

I'd like to commission illustrators more often, but sometimes I just don't have the time to track someone down. Sometimes stock Web sites are the last/only resort and then if there is nothing appealing -- its back to photography. (Or my own abilities, as mentioned above.)

I hope this generates some discusssion or thinking among illustrators.

Joe Moran

Many who lament the so-called decline of Illustration don't want to accept that our industry (for lack of a better term) is changing.

Clients are looking for more then just someone to illustrate something they can't do themselves. They are looking for a strategic creative partner that can come into a project and add unique ideas above and beyond their own. Offering more then mere illustration they also bring a solid approach to design along with it. I've seen this in my own business, when agencies hire me to execute on design projects knowing they'll get an illustrative approach. So much so I refer to myself as an 'Illustrative Designer' now. Both disciplines are so much a part of my creative process it would be counter productive to isolate one at the expense of the other. Good design improves illustration and a solid ability to draw and illustrate will always improve design.

Too many illustrators have remained in the exact state they have always been in, refusing to adapt, or push themselves to accept change and thus they never grow in their creative pursuits. This won't increase their value in the eyes of potential clients but will reduce their chances at getting work as time keep moving on and design continues to change.

It's easy to blame the decline on stock illustration, computer programs etc. they are easy whipping boys. But much of the blame has to be placed on artists that refuse to expand their own creative horizons and would rather insist on things remaining as they've always been which at best is unrealistic. A one trick pony use to cut it, but not anymore.
Von Glitschka

If I may, I'd like to take the discussion back to Mr Shaughnessy's first paragraph, as it seems to be the genesis of the post. And I direct it to the founders of DesignObserver:

Someone emailed me recently to point out that illustration isn't included in Design Observer's list of "categories"... Is this omission a simple oversight, or does it tell us something significant about the current state of illustration?

I'm curious to see if the absence of illustration on the list was, in fact, an omission or an oversight? It might bring some new light to the disussion.

Many thanks in advance.

"The professional world of illustration is widely believed to be in poor shape."
This is not really a valid argument. My students and I have read some articles of this nature by Heller and others from the late 90s and more recently, and it seems like a point of view that's gotten tired. Heller has documented 80s/90s design sensibilities colliding with the rise of personal computers and accessible stock art as reasons why traditional illustration seemed 'under threat'. But a plethora of new and innovative illustrator sites, books and childrens' books, editorial illustration [even my ordinary local paper employs decent illustrators], album art, advertising design and animation disproves this opinion I think. Escalating technologies and other issues seem to have contributed to a new subjectivity; audiences are looking for image-making styles that are immediate, humanistic, subversive, whimsical, imaginative etc. Granted, much contemporary illustration is derivative and vacuous, but my designer friend always reminds me of the 70-30 rule, or 90-10 rule, or whatever ... 70% of any cultural genre is pap, and we should avoid black and white statements.

'Someone' is probably right, you could add illustration to your categories. While some designers might find illustration distasteful, it's a legitimate field of visual communication in many cultures.

"I can't find one illustrator in the phone book, or one with a Web site."
Joe - give up on the phone book and the Google search. There are vast numbers of great portals and other sites for illustrators and 'graphic artists'. Start with Drawn! and illustrationmundo.
Alex G

"Illustration, on the other hand, with its woolly ambiguity and its allusive ability to convey feeling and emotion..."

A learned illustrator can most certainly convey feeling and emotion. The problem isn't that illustration is inadequate for design, it's that illustrators have turned down the path towards "art". So in a way, illustrators have separated themselves de facto by following trends.

I'd like to address KF's question as to whether "the absence of illustration on the Design Observer list was an omission or an oversight?"

I wish I could say that it was an oversight. However, the list was reviewed by four founding writers and illustration never came up...

There are other pieces on illustration on Design Observer here and here, for example. We'll add an illustration category soon, thanks to Adrian: I suspect we'll discover more pieces about illustration buried in the archive.

William Drenttel

I'd argue that design is "eclipsing" illustration because more and more illustrators I know (myself included) have made a career as a DESIGNER.

I'd argue that it's the illustrator who has changed graphic design. We've gotten into design shops and are bringing OUR skills as draftsmen in and have shaken your world up.

And as far as illustration being dead--hmm. Seems to me like there are a plethora of animated films coming out (not to mention video games) and one would assume that each animation studio (and video game studio) has a fleet of illustrators, storyboard artists, character designers, sketch artists, background painters, shaders, etc etc etc etc.
Mordicai Sulk

Strange, I have never really thought about illustration as distinct from graphic design.

Sometimes when I hear talk of illustration it is in the "explanation, elucidation, or adornment" sense of the word. But looking back at the etymology illustration is based on illumination or rather a spiritual illumination, a casting of light if you will. Illustration can provide an illuminating dissonance, a certain harmony, counterpoint, or it can be a direct representation of the subject matter.

I think that graphic design and illustration have the same capacities, an illustration can be precise, clear and itelligible and then in the next instance it can inspire a new way of seeing or an imagined possibility.

(As a side note I've always enjoyed the title of Walter Benjamin's Illuminations. I think the idea that we are luminous bodies is really great.)
abi huynh

Quote: Graphic design's eclipsing of illustration is explained by illustration's lack of verbal explicitness. Graphic design is almost exclusively about precise communication, and its facility to combine words and images makes it a far more potent force than illustration.

Now THIS in my humble opinion is one of the main reasons
for illustrations poor shape these days. It's people who still see illustration solely as the thing that goes nicely with Dr. Seussian rhymes and looks yummy on Jelly jars.
There are a whole sleuth of illustrators out there whose work is in no way less "verbally" precise than any headline or blurb. The medium is illustration, but the approach is design and this is where I think illustration is till able to compete.

Why 'Graphic Design vs. Illustration?" Illustration is just a tool, one of many (like photography, type, color, etc), at the graphic designer's disposal. Illustrator's are rarely, if ever, hired directly by marketers, editors, and publishers. If illustration isn't used successfully, or used at all, that's largely the fault of the graphic designers who hire them or don't hire them.

If using illustration would make a project better/ more successful, than it's the responsibility of the graphic designer to sell the approach to a client. Rather than take the time to lobby for illustration or educate the client on the benefit, it's often much easier to use photography. Using illustration is a risk. You can never be quite certain what the final will look like even if you've approved tight sketches. There's usually only one final image, and it can be difficult to revise if needed. With photography it's all about choice. You get rolls of film, or a cd burned with dozens of images to choose from. If none is perfect, than heck, they're already Photoshop files, ready to be retouched or spliced together. If you're a graphic designer, why go out on this limb?
jason lee

well said Fuchs.

the design profession is littered with "rankists". As a (new word) designistrator® I often find myself among those ranks; one foot Converse. One foot Prada (wait, Prada- that may be art director).

I'd love to be in the room when this rank and file designer steps to illustrator Steve Brodner or Niemann to offer some of this "verbal" wisdom.

there are a lot of illustrators out there finding create ways to enter business and new niches
to capitolize on.
felix sockwell

Interesting discussion. To add to Alex G's response to Joe Moran about online illustration sources, Joe (and others) should also check out sites such as the ispot.com and portfolios.com, too. There are also organizations such as the Society of Illustrators, The Illustrators' Partnership of America (IPA), and (in Canada) CAPIC, who can provide resources and info on the illustration community.

Unfortunately illustrators have priced themselves out of the market. I simply can't afford their fees.

WOW! Thanks Lori! Good stuff!

And George. I disagree. Illustration is worth it's weight in gold. Do what you have to do to get it. Sell the house. Sell yourself... Sell the concept.

Joseph Moran

George, you may have been seduced by the el cheapo prices of stock illustration. The fact is that illustration fees have barely risen in the last 15 years, so illustrators must quite often work more (if they can find it!) or create stock inventory for themselves.

As a collagiste as well as designer, I know that Photoshop has blurred the lines between illustration and design; designers now have the tools to assemble images in a rich and complex way. As per the prior post, we live in days of sampling, both audio and visual. As for drawing and painting, those skills are another fine matter.
Marty Blake

Seriously, how have Illustrators priced themselves out of the market? I don't see a noticeable difference in Illustration fees in the last 10 years, even with inflation!! If you're an AD or designer working for a company for 10 years, or even a single year, with no increase in pay, I'd bet you would be furious. How could we possibly keep lowering our fees when the cost of living increases every year?

One thing I find astonishing about this article above all and rightly so pointed out by a friend of mine (Ben, if you're reading),
is that Mr Saughnessy is in fact the editor of Varoom! (a great illustration magazine). I'm confused...

Illustrations are not better or worse, but why the developers have to made up the fees that much in the air? As a starter you have less chance to get into it rightly before you know what you exactly do.

I agree with what some already mentioned, it's a tool of designers.

too bad many of my classmates can't even draw a straight line...

Graeme - no need to be astonished. Like a number of other bloggers, you seem to think I'm anti-illustration. I'm not. Far from it. Read my last paragraph. I state emphatically that I think we are all poorer as a consequence of illustration having been elbowed aside by graphic design and photography. I'm passionately committed to illustration, which is why I took on the job of editing Varoom - a new magazine devoted to 'illustration and made images.' I want compelling and emotive illustration to be centre stage in visual culture. I want it to be revered and enjoyed. I want it to be widely and adventurously commissioned. But I also reserve the right to criticise illustrators who have become defeatist, and who have allowed illustration to become anodyne and irrelevant. There's a fight to be fought here - but we can only fight if we recognise illustration's shortcomings.
Adrian Shaughnessy

The fact that designers these days not only can't draw or illustrate even simple things is one issue. But when they chose to use stock or clip art, it only adds to the homogeneous state of design today.

I think we've all seen enough of the same crest, flourish or griffon. It's gotten to where I've even seen clip art used in logos produced by "professional" design shops.

Times have changed, and things are moving faster, but illustration is an invaluable device of design.
chad carr

I make album packaging for a living. My fellow colleagues in the studio where I work all profess to being designers, but for what we do, it feels much more like illustration. To me, "design" needs to have a functionality or twist which makes it effective and/or interesting. The main focus of my job is to make things "pretty" in order for other people to buy them which makes me feel like all I am doing is illustrating even though I am using graphic devices and type to do so. I hate my job and my bosses will probably read this, but I wonder about where the real opportunities to do "design" or good work for a living are.


Just from you comment I can only guess you are doing good work.

Keep it up buddy! Only you can say "I'm proud of this."

Isn't that what it's all about?

Keep it up. Keep it real. Honor, Courage, Commitment. (right?)

Joe Moran

I am the guy who gave you the idea for this column, thanks, wait no thanks for the shout out, I was only suggesting that since you featured illustration time to time that you might want to make it easier for people to fine the LINK. Ok that was a no go. Since, not too many designers are flooding into the illustration world and lowering thier talents and making the big bucks illustrating we will forgive your comment. Illustration is a good gig, we will not count on you pimping us, you got stories to tell and we love that. It's all family and it's all good. We make our money doing what we love, it's great to draw pictures and make a buck and pay the bills. Hope it lasts, but if it don't we can always turn to design.
David Flaherty

Making quality work is what creates your reputation. Some designers limit themselves to using type and stock only and haven't developed much appreciation for other disciplines.
It is hard to if no one passes on their passion for the craft.

I wouldn't have appreciated type as much as I do if designers like Daniel hadn't walked me through their own love for it. In turn he appreciated my little talks about illustration.

Comissioning something new can often be cheaper, faster and better than using stock. There may be some risk attached to it but the returns are worth it. Designers who take risks are better designers. Even the whole process of working with people and learning things is a great bonus.

I love being an illustrator for those reasons: meeting great creative people who compliment and challenge my perspectives,
seeing their cool offices, making things together we couldn't have done on our own and growing as a person because of the process. It's a lot of fun.

Thanks editors for adding Illustration formally to Design Observer and for Adrian's letter which led to that.
Ben Weeks

"I'ts hard to believe there isn't some national Illustrators club or at least some loose affiliation with a Web site. All I can find is the Graphic Artist's Guild. Not every town/state has a listing."

there ya go, since 1909

illustration is not dead... In a new technology based society... and a modern renasance (i beleive due to that same technology) you just have to be multi faceted.... also I believe that in the advertising world there is a huge lose of illustration being used and that is ashame... But in alot of other industries the are fully ran by illustration.... i beleive that iraditional illustration is hurting due to lose of appreciation over money.... Most designer today just trace a photo in illustrator and puff you have a illustration or even worse making photo collages and calling them illustrations.... If you get a design project it is alot easier to include illustration then make an illustration for someone elses design project

A great portal to find illustrators is Folioplanet.

Funny you should blog about this topic. I was just noting in my recent projects a demand for illustration. In fact, the last three projects have called for various illustration to complete a rebrand for each client. I've found it a refreshing challenge to amp up on the illustration side of design. It requires nothing short on the side of imagination to come up with graphic design that utilizes illustration. And you may just find yourself busier than ever doing version after version of special executions once the "look" is established. My clients have fallen crazy in love with their new looks. The work is fresh and the message is completely integrated. Funny how the universe works. I happened to stumble across a site on a blog while in the midst of my projects. It was a site that highlighted a set of posters that were done by Weiden & Kennedy's Amstedam office for the Italian soccer team players. Each of them playing off one of those great French litho culinary posters that are 100+ years old. I was pleasantly surprised to find that illustration could possibly be a re-emerging trend. It truly can differentiate a client's brand. I would challenge anyone who's a designer to push themselves down the illustration road. It will be much to your client's (and your portfolio's) delight. : )
Mary Ellen Schrock


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jessica kardon

As an illustrator, I guess I have to post a comment here too. I personally don't think there is that much of a clear line between illustration and design. In broader definition, illustration is part of design. As an illustrator, I don't work by myself for myself. I almost always work with designers, pitch ideas to each other, create image, and then the designer create the page to match my image.

When I open up a magazine I worked for, surprise sometimes comes in a form of great design works well with my image together makes my image look a lot better than I thought(=which makes the magazine look great), or other times a huge disappointment with bad design.
Story should not be about "illustration VS design", but should be about "illustration AND design". They work hand in hand.

Remember the design observer post last year by Michael Bierut?
The topic was about illustration, but about design too, and about new and innovative advertising.

When people say "illustration is dead" they often compare it to golden age of Push Pin in the 70s etc. Well, that was when illustration was in a huge "boom". Booms always pass. Booms make good illustrations grow, but let the bad illustrations grow on the side as well. Booms pass, and bad ones gets eliminated, but then the good ones always stay anyway.

Although I am a professional illustrator, I don't need to see illustration everywhere. As long as illustrations are used in the right projects, to make the design and projects work, and as long as good design and good illustration work hand in hand.

As for whether Designobserver needs "illustration" as their topic, I honestly don't care either way.
Yuko Shimizu

Here in Austin, where I live, a lot of illustrators are busy working on video games. That's a major employer of illustrators these days.

If illustration exists today well find it doing what it has always done: convey ideas, establish emotional connections, and decorate products (fashion). Observing as a graphic designer I see illustrations everywhere...in the web space. As I reconsiled my ideas of graphic design in the web space I've had to categorize some new works as illustration. They certainly ain't graphic design.

I would point to Threadless the t-shirt web store-- fantastic worlds of self expression recognized by others who share similar interest. I see a close resemblance between the styles and ideas on Threadless to traditional illustration. I see these visual aesthetics everywhere in digital art for web sites like Art Noveau was to the turn of the century. Some of this digital artist has made it to corporate use as well. Detailed digital art is more adaptable than traditional illustration ever was to the printed page. The micro aesthetics of pixel art translate well to integration with buttons, border graphics, etc.

Illustration lives on. It has adapted. Saw the writing on the wall-- the budgets moving away from illustration on board-- pixel pushing. Its struggling as much as ever. In the web space.

A minor detail, but perhaps important in interpreting his relevance to this idea: Milton Glaser signed the First Things First 2000. I'd consider him a "big-name illustrator."
Randy J. Hunt

Illustration dead? It is alive and well, but it exists in a kind of design purgatory. I am the Illustration Community Director on the board of AIGA Seattle. As far as I know there is only one other illustration chair on AIGA boards around the country. That's not an oversight. AIGA has ditched the illustration category for their 365 competition. Next year it is folding it into the editorial category. With that the long slow decline of "illustration" as a part of the design community is complete. Designers have balkanized the industry. Nowadays a designer will tag him/herself as a branding expert, or an experience designer, an environmental designer, but hardly ever solely a designer. And NEVER an illustrator. I am a designer. But I am thoroughly old school. I do not see the difference from designer, illustrator, artist, writer, filmmaker, etc. My heroes coming up were Ben Shahn, Uncle Milty Glaser and the Push Pin bunch, Paul Rand, Georg Olden and the like. These people were designers. Nuff said. They did it all. Illustration was more than merely a tool, it was an integral part of the design process, an integral part of communicating an idea. I believe that today's designers also do it all. They create websites, work on corporate communications projects, create logos, make advertising, art direct photo shoots, kern type, write copy, develop brands and design t-shirts. When they draw a logo or letterform, when they alter a photograph, combine stock imagery and letterforms into an image that didn't exist before, they are illustrating. I agree that the days of earning big bucks doing spots for Playboy or Newsweek are long gone, but there are many different avenues where illustration is alive and thriving. Gaming, animation, packaging, charts/info graphics, advertising across a wide variety of digital media, graffiti, plush toys, sneakers/fashion, interiors, etc. And oh yeah editorial. Pick up any hipster magazine, Lowdown, Grafik, Giant Robot, Big, Beautiful Decay, Stop Smiling, Swindle, and you will find in and around the photo spreads, loads of innovative, contemporary illustration. Done by people in all areas of the creative industry. They may or may not consider themselves illustrators, but great work is out there and it is having an impact on our culture and on design.
Mark Kaufman

Well said; agreed. But while those hipster magazines you mention continue to publish trendy techniques, they don't pay enough to feed your fish. In order for the profession to flourish outside the hipster demo, there needs to be a more concerted effort to convince editors to up the sagging fees. And it ain't happnin. As I understand it fees havent changed in 20 years. Thats a long time.
The new "mode" (if you will) is getting faster- which a certain AIGA illustration board member (and moderator) here in NY does extremely well.

speaking of extremities, according to parsons we are entering the golden age of illustration.
felix sockwell

Great thread, but am I missing something or are we still, 10 days since Mr. Shaughnessy's post, awaiting the magic word 'illustration' to actually show up in the categories list?
Andy Martin

Felix, I concur. Fees are not just the same as 20 years ago, adjusting for inflation they are in fact less. The same goes for salaried designers and freelance fees. So the notion that employers are going to all of a sudden raise fees/slaries out of the goodness of their hearts is a non-starter. Before I mentioned magazines I did mention a range of other possibilities for designers and illustrators to expand their markets, and actually earn a living. A meager living, but a living nonetheless. I both hire illustartors, photographers, designers and need to find work myself, so like many of us I'm on both sides of the trough. And there are slim pickings. It is incumbent upon each of us not to bury illustration, or bemoan the sorry state of the business, but to figure out how to expand the market for illustration and to make demands that it is not ignored. Step one, going back to Mr. Shaughnessy's post, is to call on the design community to do the small things like add an illustration category.
Mark Kaufman

Children's publishing is 99% illustrated. Kids demand a lot more creativity. Photography is a reflection of real life, so quite dull for little ones! Have a look at Children's Illustrators to view the work of hundred's of talented illustrators working today.

Can't help but notice that illustration still hasn't been acknowledged in the far right column.
Al aka El Negro Magnifico

God, this is so depressing. We're told Illustration is dying on it's feet.
So, illustrators, it's up to you.
paul davis

Illustrations has many facets, much that are mentioned above. Illustration for design is another, a tool for communication that presents an idea at its best. Detailed illustrations are a voice of a product designer for the development team to bring it to existance. Bottom line is illustration and graphic design are two entirely different fields.
Mudita Mull

No wonder I'm having such a hard time of it these days! Finding it difficult to feed myself let alone pay for my college loans I'm
thankful for the update that my profession is no longer relevant. In college the big difference between the design and illustration department was a more moral thing. If you stole someone else's idea in my department you were kicked out, if you stole someone else's idea in the design department you were given an A. I think its a sign of the instant gradification society we live in. Get it to me now! So illustration is not instant & originality involves pondering. But while I'm starving I'm also thankful that none of my logo designs show up on the news as an identifying tatoo to locate the identity of a murdered prositute. Now that's bad PR. Clip art is fast, but when it goes bad it can really go bad.
Ask the big phone company, about their clip art unraveled ball logo. Did they make it their own, yes eventually they did with the help of illustration. One things for sure—it costs alot more to retreive public domain than it does to create an original, pay for it and have it as your own. Peace of mind really is priceless.
(diienno illustration & design)
Trish Diienno

One of the reasons illustration is undervalued is that it's so misunderstood. Heller's 'Education of an Illustrator' hardly even gets close to the real strengths of illustration over photography (and why are there less than a dozen images in a 300 page book on illustration?!). Illustrators themselves generally can't articulate its strengths. Scott McCloud comes closest in his classic 'Understanding Comics'. And Donis Dondis in a 'Primer of Visual Literacy' touches on this too. The key is in an images relationship to realism. The further we get away from realism, the more meaning can be invested in the picture. In this sense, illustration belongs with design more than photography does. Design is not about being explicit Mr Shaughnessy. It has much more in common with poetry than prose, and works best when space is left for the viewer to make small, intuitive leaps to close the message. This is what makes for memorable design: user input. Photography (generally, certainly not always) requires less of these leaps than illustration.
stuart medley

Perhaps photographs have trumped other forms of illustration for two reasons: photographs are, with rare exceptions, assuredly inexpensive to license, and photographs move very seamlessly between illustration and documentation, between illustration and reportage. Good designers and good marketing often exploit that duality, that double whammy, in the language of professional wrestling.

Illustration may have lost the economic race to the bottom - not a bad race to lose, that - and, of course, illustration is straitjacketed into *never* being confused with documentation.

Our industry lives in interesting times.
Walter Dufresne

I think we all live too much in our own worlds .. If you look around illustration is everywhere.. on tons of products, animated films, cartoon .. is Pixar dead as well? The Video Game Industry which is almost completely illustration based is almost twice as big as the movie industry, plush and vinyl toy phenomenon, comic book industry, plus a ton more things .. I would say the opposite .. illustration is growing rapidly ... but don't get caught up in a "Versus", "doomsday" game .. Photography is great, design is great, animation is great, illustration is great .. these are all great tools/mediums to inspire, create and communicate in .. they have their strengths and weaknesses .. but none of them are going to disappear anytime soon.

For some great illustrators check out http://www.illustrationmundo.com/illustrators.php?favorites=1699
Nate Williams

On evolution:

This is a great topic and interesting insight into the minds of all the non-illustrators.

I'm a "New School" illustrator - meaning I know how to use a computer. It's a great tool and gets me through the day. I preffer it in combination with "traditional" hand-drawn work.

The truth is that the industry of visual arts in general is contantly changing with the advancement of technology and communication. Budgets are also a huge influence on the designer, artist, or illustrator. All you have to do is go to Monster.com and search for graphic design. I guarantee everyone wants a designer that can do print, and web, and illustration, and, and, and....

If you can't do it all... you are in trouble. Just graphic design alone is being relegated to another responsibility of the office assistant. Anybody can do basic design and html these days. The technology has allowed for that.

The challenge for us all is to bring quality and style to the table. Perhaps not too much style, as that can pigeon hole you and make you less versatile.

For my day job, I've become the do anything designer. I have to be to get the job. With my freelance, I promote my more personal and interesting work-my illustration. It is an unfortunate sacrifice, but necessary for me at least. Sad that I work for the biggest greeting card company in the world, but not as an illustrator...

Matt Mills

My apologies for Chiming in late to this discussion. I just learned of this Editorial today. Haven't visited in months.
Intended on writing commentary within Jesse's Editorial on Herbert Matter and the New Haven Railroad.

Clarifying Points.

There was a time when graphic design and illustration were indivisible. Many of the great designers of the 20th century were also illustrators and moved effortlessly between image-making and typographic functionalism.

This is a Total BOGUS, Misleading and a Mythological Statement. You were either an illustrator or Designer. Until a few Noted Exceptions Broke Tradition in the Middle to Late 1960s. I note them below.

The Atmosphere and Politics of the Profession didn't generally allow Illustrators and Designers to Cross Pollinate.

What a Few Noted Exceptions accomplished on a National or International Scale was not Replicated by others. The Interchange of Disciplines may have been more Prevalent in Europe by Abram Games, Toni Zepf, Adolphe Mouron Cassandre, Tom Eckersly, Tomi Ungerer, Herbert Leupin, Hans Hillman, Andre Francois, Celestino Piatti, Bob Gill (others).

That Freedom of Interchangeability or Cross Pollination was not the Norm in the United States or Accepted Practice.

Others may have created small independent projects incorporating Illustration and Design. It wasn't Common Practice nor Universally Accepted in America.

Corporate, Private Industry, and Government Agencies that once Employed Graphic Designers, Illustrators, Photographers, Writers & Editors working within the same department have all but Dwindled. Graphic Designers are the most Prevalent sought after and Employed because of Business Communication Need.

If an Art Director wanted to Hire an Illustrator he/she hired an Illustrator and vice versa with Design.

Few in America were Revered Enough to have both Feet Planted in both Disciplines.

Illustration and Graphic Design are two Separate and Completely Different Creative Disciplines. Illustration Roots are in Fine Art, Painting.
Graphic Design Roots are in the Printing and Publishing Industries.

Both Saul Bass and Paul Rand's Creative Range allowed them to Create in many Disciplines of Visual Communication not afforded others.

Let me Break Down the History of Illustration, Graphic Design and Photography that No One Else has Expound.

I began my Education, Training and Work as an Illustrator in 1969-70 at the age of Fourteen (14). Learning from a Master that was a Protégé of Norman Rockwell, Mr. Carleton T. Washburn whom taught Advertising Art on the Vocational Level for thirty eight (38) years. His Peer if there were any was Leon Friend, Famed Teacher whom taught at Lincoln High, New York.

I have since transcended to Corporate Identity, twenty ( 20) years ago.

This need to be said.

Illustration has always been Solely an Independent Practice.
Very few Corporations, Business Entities Employed Illustrators as Full Time or Part Time Staff. With the Exception of Art Studios and the Federal Government. There may have been exceptions to this rule, not many.

Paramount to this discussion, to maintain steady employment in Illustration you had to have an Agent or Representative to market you and sell your work. Few Illustrators survived without an agent or Rep.

Unlike Graphic Design where most Corporate, Private Industry and Government Agencies Employed Graphic Designers to Clarify the Dissemination of Information via Charts, Diagrams, and Schematics. Most important, Clarifying, Synthesizing, Organizing the Communication of Printed Material.

Thus, Graphic Design is a Utilitarian Profession by Nature. The Designer must wear many hats and must have Knowledge, Expertise, Interest, and Exposure in a Broad Range of Subject Matter.

The Corporate Creative Director or Design Director may be involved in Developing and Designing the Corporate Identity one month and the next month he/she is Directing a photo shoot for the Annual Report. Shortly after the Designer may be involved with Designing the Company Trade Fair Exhibit. The Designers Focus, Exposure, and Daily Grind is quite different than an Illustrators.

Illustrators are Locked into and Confined to Creating only within a two dimensional surface which is Extremely Limiting, at the same time, very Gratifying.

Illustrators have Dominated Visual Communication for a Couple of Centuries, perhaps longer. The primary vehicle of Illustration was the Publishing Industry and Advertising. Where Art Editors and Art Buyers had all the Power and Glory. Illustration is where the BIG MONEY was Spent.

The Graphic Designers function at the time was to layout and paste up the story, spec the type for Headline and Captions. Designers at the time were essentially powerless.
The Art Director was generally a Former Named Illustrator that transcended into Management. Most were Educated in Fine Arts or either had Art School Training.

If not, Painting was there Passion. Illustration was a vehicle to feed the family

The climate changed in the Middle 1960s. A new Breed of Designer and Art Director was Born and Emerged. These were the Design School Art Directors, that were trained by many of the European Design Immigrants. Bauhaus, Swiss, Italian and Dutch Masters.

This new Breed of Designer and Art Director was well versed in Visual Communication. Many majored in Advertising Design, or Graphic Design.

During this era, Realism was being Ostracized in Favor of Modern Art. The new Breed of Designer and Art Director Favored Photography over Illustration because Photography was Cheaper, Less Time Consuming, depicted reality as the human eye saw it.

Illustration also gave Birth to a New Breed of Illustrator whom Broke the Tradition of the Westport School, The Most Dominant Peer Group in Illustration History, Norman Rockwell, Austin Briggs, Al Parker, Steven Dohanos, Bernie Fuchs, Bob Peak (others).

A New Breed of Illustrator was born that Broke the Westport School Tradition, which was a Slice of Life Style of Illustrating, The new Voices that Broke Tradition were Phil Hays, Robert Weaver, Robert Cunningham, (others)who's work was more Conceptual, didn't posses the Technical Facility of the Westport School Style of Illustration.

The Generation that followed was Driven by Illustration and Design their work knew No Boundaries. These Leaders of the New School (Hip Hop Pun Intended) included Milton Glaser, Seymour Chwast, Richard Hess, Paul Davis, Michael David Brown, whom worked interchangeably and comfortably between Illustration and Graphic Design.
Their Illustration Style Ranged from Stylized, Bold Simplistic to Graphic Silhouettes with Memorable Impact.

The Illustrators Enemy Traditionally were never Graphic Designers. This seem to be the Tome of some Patrons of Design Observer.
The Illustrator's Arch Enemy in the Beginning was the Photographer. Because of advancement in Photographic Equipment and Technology, the Photographer soon won out. Photographers could create more volume than Illustrators and Designers. Mechanical Production vs Creativity by the Human Hand, was more expedient and favored by Creative Decision Makers in Industry.

The Personal Computer, Apple, Macs has given The Power and Glory back to Designers and Illustrators. All of a sudden Designers and Illustrators could create more volume than Photographers. The PC and Macs were Created for Designers and the Publishing Industry.

In the 1980s software packages were not user friendly. Designers struggled to learn them. Corporations, and Private Industry essentially hired non Designers whom only understood how to run software programs, many had no Design Education. Very few software jockeys possessed the knowledge and capability to sell their Ideas to clients, and rationally define and defend their work in client meetings, briefings and presentations. After five (5) or six (6) of this nonsense Employers understood the Investment of Employing Qualified Educated Designers and Experienced the Severity of Depravity not Employing Qualified Tried and True Combat Ready Creative Personnel.

The Comment Graphic Design is Eclipsing Illustration. The statement is true to a certain extent. Again the Graphic Designers Function is a Utilitarian Responsibility.

The Illustrators Function and Responsibility is Confined to Visual Expression on a Two Dimensional Surface.

Ultimately, it is the Graphic Designers, Art Directors, and Editors in Positions of Authority Responsibility to Support Illustrators, Educate their Clients to Purchase Illustration at the Going Rate not support Stock Houses. If there were more Camaraderie between the two Professions we wouldn't be having this conversation online.

The Computer has Revolutionized Visual Communication. Graphic Designers had to start all over again by embracing this new technology. Then we were hit with Information Technology, Graphic Designers were Shunned until IT Specialist Realized they were Good at Writing Code, however had no understanding of Design and building user interface friendly websites.

Illustrators have to also do some Soul Searching. The Pendulum swings back and forth. The Pendulum will not swing back in the Direction of Illustration until Illustrators Reinvent themselves and make their Skill Set Invaluable, Indispensable, and Relevant.

I continue to Dream the day will come when Illustrators once again will have a seat at the Table in Client Meetings and Presentations discussing Target Markets, Core Values,
Explaining to the Client the Most Effective Way to Communicate their Idea.

An aside:

(no graphic designer ever enjoyed the fame of Norman Rockwell, for example). As Ed Fella, a practitioner with feet in both camps, sagely noted:

In as much as I Respect Ed Fella I thoroughly understand his statement. As Norman Rockwell was is an will be my Hero from a Child and continue to be until this day, along with Austin Briggs.

Walt Disney was a Graphic Designer and alumni of the Art Institute. The World knows Disney???!!!
Disney's Name Supercede Norman Rockwell Globally.

No Visual Communicators in History Past or Present to include Norman Rockwell or Disney Possessed the Capability to Distill the Essence of a Corporations Message, Goals and Aspirations within a One by One Inch or O.5 inch Symbol Lasting fifty (50) years or beyond the Death of their Creators with little or no Modification.

The Top of that Food Chain is Reserved only for two SAUL BASS and PAUL RAND.


Very interesting piece by Adrian Shaughnessy, Its nice to hear the long view on things. Funny i was thinking illustration was doing really well these days. In the UK i see it being used in more places than ever on shoes, advertising, computer games, toy design, websites and music videos to name a but a few.

Myself as an illustrator i do find that i am selling the idea of illustration as well as my own work to design companies when i approach them. Many times when i ask them why they do not use much illustration at all they don't seem to know. Maybe illustrators need to find better avenues to sell themselves and getting there vastly different and individual ways of being creative noticed. How they could do this is another discussion altogether.

Chris Keegan

"For my day job, I've become the do anything designer. I have to be to get the job. With my freelance, I promote my more personal and interesting work-my illustration. It is an unfortunate sacrifice, but necessary for me at least. Sad that I work for the biggest greeting card company in the world, but not as an illustrator..."

I am similar in that I have a day job where I do everything, web and online design, print/editorial graphic design and illustration, and a bit of promotional work for the company as well. My free time is spent doing personal projects, card designs, friends' Web sites. These are what I told a lady the other day my projects where I can just have fun. No one is going to overly critique me or make me change too many things. People are generally satisfied with an attractive, easy, clean piece of work or Web site.
I don't really find it a sacrifice though, because I believe in what I do at my day job. I work for a newspaper and I took this job intentionally. I love editorial work and creating infographics and charts and helping shape the news. I feel it's a public service to the community and I can take pride in that and I feel like I live a worthwhile life. Without this, I'd lose a large sense of purpose.

I think it's interesting, I do both illustration and graphic design, and I understand the difference between the two, and I don't have a problem doing both. Maybe it's because I'm younger, 27, but I enjoy both equally and I enjoy the freedom that comes with being competent in both. It is unfortunate for older designers that have not adapted to the changing climate of the design world (my dad is a good example of this, luckily he is such a clever and creative and smart person he managed to get an interesting job at a museum), but I don't think this is a good enough reason to say the design world has taken a horrible turn like some subtly try to make it sound. The other unfortunate thing for freelance illustrators is that there is no "training" the way there is at a big company like mine. The learning curve suddenly becomes considerably higher and more costly and those left are left with little protection against real world concerns like bills and how to put food on the table. But like I told a fellow journalist Alan Mutter the other day, at least design hasn't gone to India and China like so many other jobs have. However, he did inform me that some copy-editing jobs have actually, but none that I know of.


Jobs | July 19